The spooky season has arrived and among this year’s crop of horror franchise resurrections is “The Exorcist: Believer,” the first in a planned trilogy of sequels to William Friedkin’s 1973 classic “The Exorcist.” If you know anything about this revamped version, you’ll know it’s not just one little girl who’s hacked by Satan, but two. For everything else, keep on reading — meaning spoilers ahead.
Like the director David Gordon Green’s previous trilogy of “Halloween” reboots, “The Exorcist: Believer” has been critically panned. Given the two movies set to follow — the second installment “The Exorcist: Deceiver” is scheduled for spring of 2025 — it’s a bad start for Green and company. Though I imagine they’re not banking on good reviews so much as the divine power of nostalgia and brand recognition.
‘The Exorcist: Believer’ | Anatomy of a Scene
David Gordon Green narrates a sequence from his film, featuring Leslie Odom Jr. and Lidya Jewett.
“Hi, I’m David Gordon Green, the director and co-writer of ‘The Exorcist: Believer.’” [FAUCET KNOB SQUEAK] “So this sequence takes place shortly after the disappearance of Angela Fielding, the daughter of Victor Fielding, played by Leslie Odom Jr. And Angela has been missing for three days and just returned and starts to behave a little bit strangely.” “What you doing up, ladybug? Gotta use the bathroom.” “So with this sequence, I’m starting to establish the unnerving quality of a father that can’t quite explain the behavior of his daughter. One of the lessons I learned on the ‘Halloween’ movies is the effect of a continuous timeline. And so although the sequence is comprised of numerous shots, the effect is one long shot. And that slow burn, that time where there’s no gimmicks that you can process as a viewer, it adds a strange expectation of when something is gonna happen, slow moves, no expression from Angela. It’s almost the neutrality of her face that makes it so unusual because she is so full of charms, and smiles, and loving life. Here we’re starting to see things in a little bit of a subtler grade of expression.” [FAUCET KNOB SQUEAK] “What’d you say?” “Atmosphere is — sound design is subtle music that’s woven into the sound design. You’re a little bit on guard, you’re a little bit on edge as you’re letting that continuity unfold. And then that way, when she’s transcended this geography in a way that we know because we’ve established characters coming and going and walking in and out, it’s all the more unnatural and off putting.”
David Gordon Green narrates a sequence from his film, featuring Leslie Odom Jr. and Lidya Jewett.CreditCredit…Eli Joshua Adé/Universal Pictures
For nearly two hours, the film tracks the possession and eventual exorcism of two 13-year old gal pals: Angela (Lidya Jewett), who is Black, and Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), who is white. “Believer” starts out in Haiti with a portentous prelude that hearkens back to the original, in which a Catholic priest stumbles upon satanic heirlooms in a very sinister-looking part of Iraq. Angela’s parents are on vacation in the island country when an earthquake hits, gravely injuring the mother and forcing the father, Tanner (Leslie Odom Jr.), to choose between saving his pregnant wife or the baby inside of her.
In the present, Tanner is an affable single dad suggesting that he chose the babe. This assumption makes up the film’s emotional backbone. After the girls go missing and return three days later with their feet mangled and eyes tweaky, they hit a monstrous form of puberty. It’s teenage rebellion made sacrilegious, razed of all of the truly crass and nasty edges that made Linda Blair’s Regan, the possessed girl in the original movie, so shocking to behold.
The film pivots away from the girls to focus on feels, courtesy of the original cast-member Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil (Regan’s mom), now the author of a book about Regan’s possession. Chris isn’t a final girl, and she’s not uniquely skilled at fending off the baddie. But because she’s a legacy character, “Believer” treats her with an air of reverence that gives her a preternatural connection to the devil — and it makes him, a supposedly omnipotent, unknowable being, a lot less scary. The demonic version of Katherine jabs a crucifix through Chris’s eyes, blinding her for the rest of the movie — a condition that parallels the film’s ideas about belief in the indemonstrable. Chris has long been estranged from Regan, who supposedly cut contact with her mother after the release of her book. Chris holds on to the possibility of Regan’s return, which she does, in a final-act cameo by Blair herself.
“The Exorcist,” a master class in grief and dread, is quite unlike the formulaic fun of, say, slasher movies that easily breed follow-ups. Famously, Friedkin (and Burstyn, at least until “Believer”) wanted nothing to do with the extended universe that spawned after its release. You don’t need to watch any of the other “Exorcist” movies to understand “Believer,” which only draws from Friedkin’s version — and offers up this extension.
The film’s equal-opportunity possession encourages cooperation between racially diverse families, and the jumbo-exorcism in the end doubles as a kumbaya circle for religious harmony. Both families assemble a supergroup of believers to perform the rites: a Protestant minister, a voodoo mistress, an Evangelical speaker-in-tongues, and an ex-Catholic nun. Because believing isn’t about any one religion, it’s a collective act of faith.
Circling back to Tanner’s decision in the beginning, the devil, trickster that he is, demands that the parents choose one girl to survive. Katherine’s dad, the most weak-willed of the three, screams out his daughter’s name and — just like Tanner, who had asked for the doctors to save his wife — the opposite happens. Angela survives. But given the shoddiness of the exorcism itself, and the fact that the devil seemed to be calling the shots through the end, I’d imagine Satan has more in store for her.